Why Level 5’s latest might succeed where Square Enix failed.
What a horrible few years it has been to be a JRPG fan. After the hat trick of SNES, Playstation, and Playstation 2, all of which had stellar JRPG libraries, bursting at the seams at the sheer amount of both quantity and quality, the last generation was a sad, desolate landscape for quality JRPGs on consoles. Whereas it is true that the DS, and to a lesser extent, the PSP, more than made up for it, the promise of the HD JRPG from E3 2005 when Square Enix debuted the Final Fantasy XIII series was never realized.
But hold up, you say. You’re talking about the handhelds and the HD consoles, you say, and that’s all well and good… but what about the Wii? What about the Wii indeed. Whereas I am of the opinion that three supremely high quality JRPGs at the tail end of its lifespan don’t make up for the drought that it too otherwise suffered, I acknowledge that the sheer brilliance of Xenoblade and The Last Story cannot be denied. And that’s fine. But this editorial is not about them. This editorial is talking about the unfulfilled promise of the HD JRPG, something which the Wii, and as a result its games, are patently not.
As far as HD JRPGs go, we haven’t had much luck, then. Except for this rather unique new game developed by two giants of their respective industries, Level 5 and Studio Ghibli. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for the Playstation 3 was released recently to general critical acclaim. Our very own Kirk McKeand liked it a fair bit, although he did note problems marring his experience. However, if in reading his review, you were to just look at the cons, or just the score, and then dismiss the game as yet another missed opportunity for an HD JRPG, I think you would be missing the point.
You see, Ni no Kuni is flat out brilliant. It might not out do Xenoblade, or even The Last Story, but it is great, and it is without question the best HD JRPG released till date. With a stunning graphical style that puts it right up there with The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker in terms of charm and timelessness, a sweet story that is as much about helping the daily everyday man as it is about saving the world, some great dialog and voice acting that make the character interactions a pleasure to behold, and some tidy evolutions of age old JRPG designs, it is a game that every fan of role playing games owes it to him or herself to play.
For starters, let’s just focus on the graphics. No picture does them justice. No screenshot captures their beauty. The game in motion is a treat for the eyes, and it looks like an animated cartoon. Like Wind Waker did so many years ago, Ni no Kuni consciously embraces this visual style, and makes it work in service of the story that it is trying to tell. As the game exists, and especially because of its story, Ni no Kuni would not have been the same game without these graphics. It would have lost its charm.
And that same charm is also backed up by the great (albeit repetitive by the end) music and the well written dialog, voiced excellently (with Mr. Drippy especially being a highlight with his Welsh accent). Ni no Kuni, like its protagonist, is a game that brings a smile to your face.
But hell, you don’t care about any of that. I mean, you should, but you don’t. No, you want to know what the catch is. Every HD JRPG looks good. Quite a few of them have great music, and some of them even have good dialog. No, that’s not what you care about. What’s the catch, you ask? No overworld? No towns? Does the battle system suck? All of the above?
And that’s the loveliest part. There is no catch. This game is like the realization of those classic SNES RPGs, in HD. You want a massive overworld? You got it, feel free to explore it at your leisure once the game is done with its (admittedly painfully long) tutorial. You want actual towns and hubs to explore, with people to talk to, and side quest design that doesn’t rival World of Warcraft in its banality? Got you covered there as well. A main quest you won’t lose interest in? Covered, and it’s a long one that constantly keeps you engaged to boot, like the 16 and 32 bit era Square Enix games.
How about the battle system? Take Pokemon, and give us a rudimentary idea of how the battle system could evolve. Yes, it has its problems- controlling too many familiars on the fly becomes difficult, it feels clunky and often degenerates into button mashing, and too many times, the battles drag on too much for their own good. Ironically for a JRPG, the battle system seems to be the biggest point of contention here. It seems brilliant in concept, but seems to lack in execution somewhat. Oh, it’s still great, but it does introduce problems. It’s not intricate, but it is overwhelming. It’s not turn based, but it’s not real time. It’s an uncomfortable mix, and a lot of the game’s overall problems, such as unexpected difficulty spikes, come from the battle system.
And in spite of all that, it’s still fun to play through. Yeah, it may be frustrating, yeah, it may seem like a flaw, but hey, if you played through Demon’s or Dark Souls and survived, chances are Ni no Kuni won’t bother you.
So does Ni no Kuni do it then? Does it realize the promise of the HD JRPG, a promise made to us eight years ago, but one never fulfilled? The truth is, it doesn’t. It’s still not what, say, Xenoblade HD would be. But you know what? It comes damn close. And if you have any interest in RPGs, you owe it to yourself to play it.